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Exploring the History of Mexico in the Murals of “the Big Three”

The History of Mexico, Diego Rivera, 1931, Palacio Nacional de México, The History of Mexico in Murals

20th century

Exploring the History of Mexico in the Murals of “the Big Three”

Muralism at the Roots of Mexican History

Although most commonly associated with the works of Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, muralism has been a part of Mexico’s artistic heritage since pre-Colombian times. Mesoamerican civilizations adorned their palaces and temples with murals depicting everything from historical events such as wars to religious ceremonies like human sacrifices. One surviving example of such ancient muralism can still be found today in the so-called Temple of Murals, which is located in the Mayan archeological site of Bonampak and dates back to the 8th century A.D.

Mural from Bonampak, unknown Mayan artist, 8th century AD, Chiapas, Mexico, The History of Mexico in Murals

Mural from Bonampak, unknown Mayan artist, 8th century AD, Chiapas, Mexico

The influences of this indigenous style of painting can be seen in both Rivera’s and Orozco’s representations of Mesoamerican life. For example, such native influences are present in Rivera’s The Great City of Tenochtitlan, which shows the unspoiled beauty and splendor of the Aztec capital before the Spanish conquest.

The Great City of Tenochtitlan, Diego Rivera, 1945, Palacio Nacional de México, The History of Mexico in Murals

The Great City of Tenochtitlan, Diego Rivera, 1945, Palacio Nacional de México


Nonetheless, Orozco uses a more primitivist style to show the less innocent side of Native American culture in certain panels of The Epic of American Civilization, particularly in one titled “Ancient Human Sacrifice.”

The Epic of American Civilization, José Clemente Orozco, 1934, Baker Memorial Library – Dartmouth College , The History of Mexico in Murals

The Epic of American Civilization, José Clemente Orozco, 1934, Baker Memorial Library – Dartmouth College

Spanish Conquest of Mesoamerica

In 1492, Christopher Columbus completed his first voyage to the Caribbean, beginning the age of Spanish colonization in the Americas. Shortly after, in 1519, Hernan Cortés became the first European to reach the mainland, famously sinking his ships upon arriving on the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula to make clear to his crew that there would be no turning back before the indigenous empires had been conquered. Indeed, the fall of the Aztec capital marked the beginning of complete Spanish domination over the native people. Accordingly, Rivera’s mural The Arrival of Cortés no longer focuses on the impressive temples or beautiful canals of the Aztec civilization but instead depicts the slave trade and forced conversions to Christianity that became commonplace under Spanish rule.

The Arrival of Cortés, Diego Rivera, 1951, Palacio Nacional de México, The History of Mexico in Murals

The Arrival of Cortés, Diego Rivera, 1951, Palacio Nacional de México


In fact, in his The Torment of Cuauhtémoc, Siqueiros uses the conquistadors’ execution of the last Aztec emperor to show that, in many regards, the Spaniards’ methods of “civilizing” the native people were not so different from the local religious practices they deemed to be so savage. The brutality of the Spanish Inquisition in the Americas went unquestioned until the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas published A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, his famous chronicles of the atrocities being committed against the native people in what had now become the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

The Torment of Cuauhtémoc, David Alfaro Siqueiros, 1950, Palacio de Bellas Artes – México, The History of Mexico in Murals

The Torment of Cuauhtémoc, David Alfaro Siqueiros, 1950, Palacio de Bellas Artes – México

Independence from Spain

By the early 19th century, however, Spain was losing its control over an empire that stretched across two continents. Coinciding with the liberation of much of South America by the armies of Simón Bolívar, the Mexican War of Independence broke out in 1810. One of the first instigators and military leaders of the independence movement was a priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, who that same year successfully marched his army through the country until finally reaching Mexico City, the Spanish capital built on the site of what was once Tenochtitlan. Nonetheless, despite being aware of his advantage over the Royalist troops trapped inside the city, Father Hidalgo retreated. Historians widely believe that this abrupt decision was made to save his fellow citizens in Mexico City from the pillaging that was sure to ensue after the rebels’ victory. Thus, the war continued, and Mexico would not gain its independence until 1821.

Father Hidalgo, José Clemente Orozco, 1949, Palacio Municipal de Guadalajara, The History of Mexico in Murals

Father Hidalgo, José Clemente Orozco, 1949, Palacio Municipal de Guadalajara


Nonetheless, the patriotic services of the revolutionary priest are commemorated in Orozco’s murals Father Hidalgo and The Great Mexican Revolutionary Law and Freedom of the Slaves. In these two works, the artist presents Hidalgo in a social realist style that shows the influence his ideas had on the country’s revolutionary movements of the 20th century.

The Great Mexican Revolutionary Law and Freedom of the Slaves, José Clemente Orozco, 1949, Palacio Municipal de Guadalajara, The History of Mexico in Murals

The Great Mexican Revolutionary Law and Freedom of the Slaves, José Clemente Orozco, 1949, Palacio Municipal de Guadalajara

The Mexican Revolution and Legacy

The first century of Mexico’s independence was a tumultuous period marked by unstable political regimes, great economic inequality, and a loss of considerable territory in a war with the United States. The dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz brought Mexico into the 20th century but ended in 1911 at the start of the Mexican Revolution. Under the leadership of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, amongst others, the several factions involved managed to institute constitutional and agrarian reform after a decade-long conflict that, according to some estimates, resulted in up to two million deaths.

From the Dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz to the Revolution, The People in Arms, David Alfaro Siqueiros, 1966, Museo Nacional de Historia, The History of Mexico in Murals

From the Dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz to the Revolution, The People in Arms, David Alfaro Siqueiros, 1966, Museo Nacional de Historia


In the various panels of his mural From the Dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz to the Revolution, The People in Arms Siqueiros traces how the extravagant and lavish lifestyle of the aristocracy did much to fuel the anger of the country’s exploited peasants at the onset of the revolution.

From the Dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz to the Revolution, The People in Arms, David Alfaro Siqueiros, 1966, Museo Nacional de Historia, The History of Mexico in Murals

From the Dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz to the Revolution, The People in Arms, David Alfaro Siqueiros, 1966, Museo Nacional de Historia

By dedicating their talents to presenting the history of their country from its origins, while at the same time preserving an artistic tradition that lies at the very heart of that country’s cultural heritage, “los tres grandes” (or “the big three,” as they have come to be known in Spanish) have left behind a legacy which continues to inspire new generations of Mexican artists. Today, the influences of Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros can be seen throughout the country—from the murals decorating the villages of Zapatista rebels in the jungles of Chiapas to the ones lining the streets on the walls of neighborhoods in Mexico City.

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Are you interested in Mexican Art? We encourage you to read these articles:

  

Student of language, literature, and politics. Travels, sails, and tends to appear at festivals. Discovered a passion for art and writing along the way. Currently resides south of the Pyrenees under the Iberian sun. Prefers pilsners to porters. Fascinated by Beckett, relaxed by Ravel, and firmly convinced that the Sex Pistols (damn the Ramones!) started punk rock.

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